tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS October 11, 2011 11:00pm-11:30pm PDT
>> funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, texas government affairs consultancy and its global health care consulting business unit, hillco health. and by the mattson mchail foundation in support of public television. and also by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and also by the alice clayburg reynolds foundation and viewers like you. thank you. >> i'm evan smith. he's a celebrated advocate and activist on behalf of the environment conservation and responsible stewardship of the planet. a graduate of harvard university, he's chief prosecuting attorney for the hudson riverkeeper and president of the waterkeeper alliance - watchdog organizations dedicated to protecting the water supply for communities everywhere. he's robert f. kennedy jr. this is overheard.
♪ >> robert f. kennedy, jr., welcome. >> thanks for having me. >> very, very, very nice to have you here. i want to begin by nodding to the calendar as we sit here taping this interview. it's earth day. i want to ask you why we have to have an earth day. why is every ddy not earth day? why do we have to turn it into a once a year recognition of what we ought to be paying attention to and celebrating all year long? >> well, it's a reminder of a -- of the, of an, of an important day in our history. was the largest public demonstration in american history, earth day 1970.
twenty million people came out on the street, 10% of our population. i remember what it was like before earth day. i remember the cuyahoga river burning with flames that were eight stories high and that couldn't be put out for a week. i remember when they declared lake erie dead. i remember that i couldn't swim in the hudson, the charles or the potomac growing up and what the air smelled like in washington, d.c. which wasn't even an industrial city. we had thousands of americans dying every year in smog events. >> yeah. >> these are -- i was -- i trained hawks from when i was a little boy, i, and i continue to do that today, and i remember when i used to visit my uncle in the white house, and in 1962 i wrote my uncle a letter and said to him that i wanned to write a book about pollution, and i'd like to meet with him about that issue, and he, i was eight years old. [laugh] he had me in to. >> he found time on the calendar. >> he found time on the calendar, had me in to the oval office.
whenever i visit the white house i always look down the old post office building in washington, d.c. because there were pair of eastern and adam peregrine falcons. >> yeah. >> .which was the most spectacular predatory bird in north america. it flew two hundred and fifty miles an hour. it had salmon pink with a beautiful white cere, and i could watch those birds come down pennsylvania avenue, pick pigeons out of the air in front of the white house forty feet above the heads of the pedestrians and then carry them back to the top of the post office, and for me that was much more exciting than visiting my uncle at the white house. [laugh] but that bird went extinct in 1962, a year before my uncle was -illed. >> yeah. >> and this accumulation from ddt poisoning - and this accumulation of insults in 1970 drove twenty million americans out onto the street demanding that our political leaders return to the american people the ancient environmental rights that had been stolen from our citizens over the previous eighty years.
in the fifteen hundreds in england it was illegal, they had a clean air act, and it was illegaa to burn coal in furnaces, and, and it was a capital crime, and people were executed for it, if, if you damaged the commons which is the, you know, the, the, those assets, those property assets that are not property ownership but by their nature are the property of the entire community, the air, the water, the wildlife, the fisheries, the public lands, the shared resources of our community, we had that law in our country up until 1876, and it was kind of abolished during the industrial revolution and people were allowed to build factories that polluted other people's lands and poisoned waters, etc. and in 1970. rachel carson wrote a book in 1961 that painted the picture very clearly, the losses, the diminishment in, in life, in the quality of life that americans had suffered and in our democracy that we'd
suffered through the theft of the commons by powerful industries within our society, and in 1970 with all these insults affecting things that people valued and very, very clear at that time to people that we were paying a price for -- for that kind of industrial growth that was actually making a few people rich by impoverishing everybody else and that it was violating our values, our democracy. it was even an assault on free market capitalism because pollution is a subsidy to industries, and it distorts the free market. they came out on the street. they demanded that the political leaders return these ancient rights, and it was such a momentous event to the politicians that republicans and democrats got together and created, -- you know, nixon created e.p.a., signed all these environmental laws into effect. over the next ten years we passed 28 major environmental laws, clean air act, clean water act,
the endangered species act. gave statutory recognition to ancient rights that people had had that western nations, that citizens of western nations had owned since the code of justinian, and, and, and since the magna carta but had been taken away from us. one of the principal roles of the government is to safeguard the commons, to make sure. >> right. >> .that whether you're rich or poor, young or old, black or white, that you have an absolute right to breathe clean air and that you have a right to go down to your local waterway and to your family with the security that you're not poisoning somebody. >> right. and the idea, though, is that while today may have been the impetus all those years ago this is a concern not just for the end of april every year, but it's a concern in theory for all. >> well, it should be a concern all year long. >> yeah. it should be. as you talk about, hearing you talk about industry and the degree to which the degradation of the environment is putting money in the pockets of industry i wonder if. i, i heard/read
that you were with boone pickens in oklahoma earlier this week.. >> ay. >> .having a discussion about the degree to which business and the environmental community have similar goals. >> right. >> you know, even if you don't get there in the same way. >> yeah, i mean, you know, and they, the audience today, there's a -- there's a friend of mine, mr. bowling, who's head of southwest energy, which is one of the biggest gas companies in the, in the country, and i, i, you know, i, you, i've said this for twenty-seven years, as an ardent environmental advocate: good environmental policy 100% of the time is identical to good economic policy. >> yeah. >> you have, you know, there, there's kind of the big polluters and they're indentured servants and on capitol hill and there are phony scientists, you know, we call them biostitutes, and they're, you know. [laugh] .-hey're, and they're think tanks on capitol hill that pretend to love capitalism but really they're about, they're about crony capitalism, not free market
capitalism. it's about capitalism for the poor, but socialism for the rich and for corporations. and they're -- one of the great mantras that they've had that's been very effective is that we have to choose between economic prosperity on the one hand and environmental protection on the other, and that's a false choice. >> it's a false choice. >> in 100%. >> right. >> .of the case is good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy if we want to measure the economy, and this is how we ought to be measuring it, based upon how it produces jobs and the dignity of jobs over the generations, and how it preserves the value of the assets of our community. if on the other hand we want to do what the polluters want us to do, which is to treat the planet as if it was a business in liquidation, convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, have a few years of pollution-bbsed prosperity we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of prosperous economy. >> right. >> we can make a few people rich by impoverishing everybody else. >> it's not a long-term >> oh, our children are going to pay for our joy ride.
>> yeah. >> and one of the things that i've done over the past two and a half decades as an environmental advocate is to constantly go around and confront this argument. >> yes. >> .that an investment in a diminish ment of our nation's wealth.ú it is the same as an investment in our infrastructure. it's the same as investing in the telecommunications structure. an investment we have to make if we're going to insure the economic vitality of our generation and the next one. >> well, this is why i was so interested in you and pickens coming together because no one would mistake pickens for a sociilist. this is a guy who has made and lost and made and lost fortunes. he's obviously quite a proud capitalist, and yet he has at least moved more toward the idea that responsible stewardship of the environmmnt by way of what he calls the pickens plan.. >> well. >> .is at least not bad for businees, but is good for. >> but you know. >> . everybody. >> .people for. this isn't something that i've recently come upon. i -- people for twenty-seven years have asked me wwat is the most important thing we can do for the environment, and i've always said to have true free-market capitalism because.
>> what's that mean exactly? what does that mean? >> well, in a true free market, a free, a free market promotes efficiency, and efficiency means the elimination of waste, and pollution is waste. in a true free market, a true free market would, would encourage us to properly value our natural resources, but, and it's the undervaluation of those use them wastefully.s us to >> yeah. >> in true free market you cannot make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community, but what polluters do is they make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. they raise ssannards of living for themselves by lowering quality of life for everybody else, and they do that by escaping the discipline of the free market. you show me a polluter. i'll show you a subsidy. i'll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production cost. that's what all pollution is. corporations are externalizing machines. they're constantly devising ways to get somebody else to pay their costs of production, and if you're in
a polluting industry, the, you know sometimes the best way for you to invest a surplus dollar is in our campaign finance system which is just a system of legalized bribery to get your hooks into a public public official to dismantle the market, marketplace, give you a competitive edge and monopoly control and then allow you to liquidate -he commons and privatize it to, to, to steal our air, to steal our water, to steal our fisheries and make yourself rich. >> you're not dpee monnizing industry, you're demonizing pad factor. >> i'm involved with dozens of business interests and that i think is really the -- the best hope that we have for -- because the market ultimately, we can produce energy and
through wind and solar and -ven natural gas which should be part of the green energy mix. if they, if the industry starts behaving responsibly, we could produce energy electrons much cheaper than the incombinants, much cheaper than coal or oil or nuke. the only way they can compete against us is the huge subsidies that they are now getting from the government. if we had a level playing field, we would beat them in - second. you would not hear from them again. >> right >> because we can produce it cheaper than they can. >> so, you know -- but what we have to understand as a people is that there is a big difference between free market capitalism and corpooate crony capitalism. a corporation's -- i wrote the introduction just recently did a republication of barry goldwater's book, the conscious conservative, which is the bible of the conservative movement in this country. it now looks like a liberal's creed. [laughing] >> they would be calling goldwater a socialist, yeah, wouldn't they? >> so, in one of the things ú&ldwater says is he says you can't let corporate ú&ney into the political
system, and you know, we have now this citizen's united case which is -- you know, which is the most momentous historically supreme court case in the last ten years. >> open the flood gates to corporate money >> it opens the flood gates and it, it has hardly been covered. we know a lot about charlie sheen, but we know very -- we are the best entertained and the least informed people on the face of the earth. h.l. mencken said that a journalist is somebody who can't distinguish between a bicycle accident and the end of civilization. and. [laughing] the citizens united case is the end of civilization. >> i am not going to take that personally. >> no [ lauggter ] >> if you're talking about them , i understand. >> not me. >> he wasn't talking about npr. >> ok. all public media. that's fine. but the idea is that you believe -- >> and that's a challenge. >> corporations are a good thing. they get people to accumulate wealth and then they risk it and they create jobs, which is what they want to do and they create strong communities. but, they should not be running our government.
>> we don't elect corporations, we elect corporations. and the corporations want whatever they want, but ultimately it falls to the politicians to act in our interests or against our interests. but, i want to switch the conversation for the moment from the corporate side of this to the political side of this. you indict the entire system by saying that the politicians accept this money and then seek to dismantle the protections that we all deserve. is, is politics beyond fixing as far as that goes? >> well, there are two things that you need to do to fix the politiccl system. the most important thing is to fix the citizens united case. we lost democracy in this country in the 1880s and 1890s. people don't remember this, but we really had, during what we called the gilded age, you know, giant corporations take over our country and we really lost almost all the vestiges of democracy at that point. you had a few courageous people. journalists like ida tarbell and sinclair lewis and a number of others who came along at the turn of the century, and great
politicians like the republican like teddy roosevelt who said, "you know we are going to put the bit into the mouths of corporate power and make corporations and economic powers serve the public interest rather than the other way around". and they created the sherman anti-trust act. they created an income tax for the first time. they created -- they made it easier for unions to organize so that we would begin creating a middle class in this country. they made food and drug reforms so that people couldn't sell bad products on the market and one of the most important things they did was pass a law in 1907 that said that corporations cannot contribute directly to federal political campaigns. and that 100 year old law last year was thrown out by the united states supreme court and all of a sudden you have a floodgate of corporate money.. >> right. >> that is coming into the political process and, you know, most of the people in
this room do not have the capacity to affect government anymore.because the costs of running for political office are so enormous that the politicians of both parties now have to go to the corporations to get that money. >> right. shouldn't we expect more? i mean, that is the question that i have. i understand that the corporations are giving and they have now been enabled or allowed to give by this decision last year, but politicians lead us to assume oh well, you can't really blame them. the doors are open. it costs a lot to run so of course they are going to do this. shouldn't we expect more from them? >> well, you know the only way we are going to earn a democracy back is for the american people to understand, you know the jeopardy that it is in. and then try to reclaim it. i always say to.people always say, what can i as an individual do to help the environment? and i say, get involved in the political processes. it is much more important to change your politician t
>> right, right. >> because they are the ones creating the rules and we need rules, we need a marketplace that is rational. a marketplace that operates under rules that, that serve the public interest, that creates an america that we are all proud of. right now we have a marketplace, at least in the energy industry, that operates under rules that were written by the incumbents, by the big polluters, oil, nuke and gas and that favor the dirtiest, filthiest, most poisonous, most destructive fuels, most addictive fuels from hell rather than the cheap, clean, green, abundant and wholesome fuels from heaven. and these, you know, our addiction to carbon have gotten, our addiction to these antiquated dinosaur energy forms has gotten us into all of these, you know, read the newspapers, these are the biggest jams and crises we're facing. they are all related to our addiction to bad energy and bad politics.
the war in iraq, you know, with oil and the oil spill in the gulf and, you know, the problems that they are having in japan. we can fix those by fixing our energy system, but first you need to fix the political system. >> well, let's talk about that. so we have in the white house a president who was the choice of many people who see the world as you do. in your family there was something of a split. you uncle teddy and your cousin patrick and your cousin caroline were with president obama in the primary. you and several other members of your family were with senator clinton. i want to know as you assess this situation going back over these two years, has the president lived up to, even if the people in congress haven't lived up to your issues, has the president satisfied you as the kind of president you want dealing with the kind of stuff you are talking about? >> well, i would prefer, you know, if i was, if i was running the show, i would move probably more aggressively than he has to build out the national grid, to reform the energy market because i think that is the best way to create jobs and prosperity.
we're borrowing a billion dollars a day from nations that don't share our values in order to import a billion dollars of oil a day, again, from nations that don't share our values and some are outright hostile towards us. >> right. >> we are funding both sides of the war against terror through our addiction to oil. and we don't have to do that. we have the energy system here and i would like to see everything that the president can do in his power to hasten a quicker adaptation, adoption, a transition to a new energy economy. so there are things that i think he could be doing better, but generally speaking, you know, i would say that he, he is fighting against a congress that is hostile. you know, he got the most important energy legislation passed through the house, but it was killed by people in the senate who essentially are indentured servants to the oil industry and the coal industry, which was the cap and trade system and that was the centerpiece of his
energy policy. he did get national healthcare passed, he got -- which is a huge legislative accomplishment whatever you feel about the systems and, you know, i was for a single payer system, not for what they got, but i have to say, he got a system passed that is going to cover 40 million americans. he has gotten us out of combat operations in iraq. i believe that he'll get us out of afghanistan in the next two or three years. and he's shut down mountaintop removal mining for the most part that was the most destructive form of energy and he started to build a national grid system in this country. >> yeah. >> but you know, it is very.he really can't do anything through congress, he has to do things by the use of executive power and it's a much more difficult way to govern. >> yeah, but on balance you're for him. >> well, i. >> because you know the critique of him is as aggressive from the left as it is from the right going into the next election. the question is will the left, will the base for the president come back out? >> yeah. i'm more inclined.
>> those values. >> i'm more inclined to cut him some slack because i understand the president has to look at -- first of all, he has to look at his reelection, and you know, and he is looking at much broader issues than the issues i am looking at on a day to day basis. >> yeah. >> generally speaking in my space in the domain that i work, he has done a pretty good job, although not a perfect job. >> right. >> and he has done a lot better job than the last guy. >> you think so? [laugh] >> oh yeah. >> that always gets a laugh in texas. we have, we have a couple minutes left. you talk like someone who has been around politics and, in fact, you sound like someone who might be in politics. you have declined previously to seek office; in fact there was an opportunity potentially for governor patterson in new york to appoint you to succeed senator clinton when she became secretary clinton. you asked not to be on that list. why aren't you running? why don't you run and what are the considerations that you look at when this question is invariably asked of you? >> i would say the one reason that i don't run.. >> yeah.
>> .is that i have six young children and it would, and just keeping them in school and a couple of them had health problems and i had, i kinda had my hands full. >> that was why you didn't seek the senate seat last time? >> that is why i didn't take a senate seat or, i had looked at the senate seat when hillary was running for it. >> yes. >> before she decided to run. >> yeah. >> i had, you know, again i had stepped away and taken myself out of that contest. but it's something that i might do. there is also, my children's' generation, there were 29 kennedys in my generation and there are 85 kennedys in my children's generation and they're all interested in politics. >> so it is a family business. right? [laugh] how could they not be interested? >> that is what we all get together on the cape in the summer and that's what people talk about. that's what -- you know,
they are all involved in public service of one kind or another, in special olympics or best buddies or environmental issues like waterkeeper. >> all of my sisters in human rights and, you know, all of them are involved in public service, but i think a lot of that generation you're going to see running for political office so.. >> you haven't ruled out the possibility yourself? >> no. >> right. and, and it's something that doesn't necessarily; you are not repulsed by it. i mean, there are a lot of people today who think running for office in this environment with this system is really not a public service. >> it is hard, especially if you have a family. and, i, if, but it's, you know, it's still -- i think it is really important that if we have people who are committed to our democracy and who understand that america is an exemplary nation. >> yep. >> we have a role in history and, you know, our role is not to spread democracy by imposing it onto others, but to perfect the union and to model democracy to the rest of the world. >> yeah.
you sound more upbeat than i would imagine given your view of the world. >> you know i am upbeat because i see what is happening in the green tech space. we are now, the speed at which these new technologies are being developed and adapted. i think anybody who looks, who sees what is happening in wind and solar and led. electric cars.you know, one &-builds is, is a tesla that goes 250 miles on a charge and is the fastest car on the road in america, 0-60 in 3.7 seconds. >> yep. >> and we're making the cost of solar panels has dropped by two-thirds over the past 18 months and you are seeing this, you know, you are going to see wide scale adaptations of these. >> yeah. >> these technologies. the chinese know this, incidentally. >> yeah.
&-a trillion dollars in theg green and wind and solar over the next five years. they are going to increase under the waxman-markey bill we were going to increase our solar deployment by 37% and the chinese are increasing their solar deployment in five years by 20,000%. they are increasing wind deployment by 1200%. they see this as the arms race of the 21st century. >> right. >> and, you know, we have a lot of troglodytes up on capitol hill who are taking their orders from. [laugh] .the carbon cronies and we need to get them to get off their hands and understand that we're in world competition, we're in a world market and we need to start leading and instead of following. >> well, you couldn't be clearer where you are coming from. mr. kennedy, we are out of time. i appreciate so much your point of view on all this stuff and thank you so much for being here. >> thanks for having me. [applause] >> good to see you. [ applause ]
>> funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, texas government affairs consultancy and its global health care consulting business unit, hillco health. and by the mattson mchail foundation in support of public television. and also by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and also by the alice clayburg reynolds foundation and viewers like you. thank you. ñy